Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto may be known for his prowess in televised culinary battles — he’s something of a Kitchen Stadium legend — but there’s so much more to this chef than his entertainment career.
Behind the flash of the Food Network show there’s a brilliant chef. He’s won awards, worked under some of the best cooks in the business, and even opened many restaurants of his own in different countries scattered across the globe. But it didn’t come easily.
He started out as an aspiring athlete from a poor, unhappy family, turning to cooking only after a severe injury dashed his hopes. But once he set his heart on becoming a chef, it seemed like nothing could stand in his way.
Today, Morimoto is one of the most revered Japanese chefs in the world. He’s still battling it out on Iron Chef America and still opening new restaurants even decades after coming to America to follow his dreams. Read on to find out more about chef Masaharu Morimoto and how he became the man he is today.
Masaharu Morimoto used to be a baseball player, not a chef
Many American fans know Masaharu Morimoto best for his days on Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, but it turns out he had a competitive spirit long before he became a chef.
Along with his dream of working as a sushi chef, as a child Morimoto aspired to be a professional baseball player. He grew up a big fan of his hometown team, the Hiroshima Carps, and played ball in high school. He was a catcher, and apparently pretty talented — he almost went pro, before he suffered a broken shoulder that ended his career and eventually shifted his focus to the culinary world.
He remains a baseball fan to this day. He threw the first pitch at a Tigers-White Sox game in 2013, and after moving to America has even gotten the chance to see one of his favorite Carps players, Hiroki Kuroda, make it to Major League Baseball in the US, where he played on the Yankees.
Masaharu Morimoto has made a name for himself in the beverage industry
Masaharu Morimoto is famous for his food, but he’s done a fair amount of collaboration with the beverage industry, too.
Chef Morimoto has helped create two different ranges of sake. The first is Easy Cup, a Yamadanishiki Junmai Premium Sake made for casual drinking that’s served in a glass bottle with an easily resealable plastic lid.
On the higher end, he’s collaborated with the historic Fukumitsuya Brewery, founded in 1625 during Japan’s Edo period. They offer Morimoto Junmai, Morimoto Junmai Gingjo, and Morimoto Junmai Daiginjo sake, and a luxe Morimoto Junmai Aged sake is available at 5, 10, or 30+ years aged. Morimoto also has a restaurant called Momosan which focuses on ramen and sake.
For beer, Morimoto paired with Rogue Ales to create three varieties, Morimoto Imperial Pilsner, Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale, and Morimoto Soba Ale.
Most recently, he’s teamed up with Michael Mondavi to create a Cabernet Sauvignon that’s sold in his restaurants.
Masaharu Morimoto didn’t have a happy childhood
You might think that someone who’s achieved such great success had a happy childhood and a supportive family, but sadly, that wasn’t the case for Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
In his book Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking, he details his youth spent with a rage-filled, often violent father. He moved more than a dozen times before he was 10 because his parents’ fighting often resulted in angry landlords.
They were poor, so dining at a restaurant wasn’t a common occurrence, and his mother wasn’t a very good cook. So how did he learn about sushi and become so enamored with it? Once a month on pay day, his father would take the family out for sushi. It was there, watching the chefs use their impressive knife skills, that Morimoto fell in love with the kitchen.
Following his fateful baseball injury, Morimoto decided to become a sushi chef. He became an apprentice first, and after eight years opened his own restaurant in Japan before moving to the United States to try to break into the industry here.
Masaharu Morimoto has restaurants around the world
He may have started small, with his own cafe in Japan, but these days Masaharu Morimoto has restaurants all over the world.
The first Morimoto restaurant opened in 2001 in Philadelphia, followed by Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 2004, which to this day is still considered one of the best restaurants in all of Asia.
These days, he has 15 restaurants all around the world, and he’s not slowing down. Several of them have even won awards. Morimoto New York won a James Beard Foundation Award for "Outstanding Restaurant Design," and Morimoto Napa was named one of the "Best US Restaurant Openings" in 2010 by Food & Wine.
Branching out from haute Japanese cuisine, Morimoto opened his first ramen restaurant, Momosan, in New York in 2016, and a second Momosan opened up in Honolulu in 2017. The chef has also said he’s considering opening a ramen spot in Las Vegas, after seeing how popular it is at his New York eatery.
Masaharu Morimoto worked at the world-famous Nobu sushi
Before he opened his own restaurant in the United States, Masaharu Morimoto got a job working at the world-famous Nobu in New York City. It was quite the place to hone his skills. Not only did the restaurant win the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award when it opened in 1995, but chef Nobu Matsuhisa himself was also nominated for a James Beard Award (for Outstanding Chef) nine times between 1997-2006.
Morimoto says that working at Nobu changed the way he thought of the restaurant industry. "Before I worked at Nobu, I had thought the sushi chef was the center of the restaurant," he told Orlando Weekly. "However, working at Nobu, I learned that the customers are everything. Our job is to make them happy."
Because Chef Matsuhisa had a second restaurant in Los Angeles, he was often absent from the New York location. This gave Chef Morimoto a chance to shine. After winning a three-star review in The New York Times, Morimoto promoted himself to executive chef, getting an embroidered chef’s jacket and new business cards, and after five years he left Nobu in 1999 to open his own restaurant.
Originally Masaharu Morimoto didn’t even want to be on Iron Chef
Though Americans might best recognize Masaharu Morimoto from Iron Chef America on the Food Network, he actually got his start in food television on the original Japanese version of the show. Even then, he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to be on television.
He cooked for a group of people one night, not knowing one of them was a judge on Iron Chef Japan. A few months later he got a call and was invited to perform on the show, but at first he declined, thinking it would be too much pressure. After encouragement from his friends, he finally accepted, and ended up winning his first battle (secret ingredient red snapper, competitor Hirayama Yukio). He would fly back and forth between Japan and the US for the next two years to compete.
Even after continuing to compete, both in the original Iron Chef and the newer Iron Chef America, Morimoto says it never gets less nerve-wracking to do battle. "I still get nervous every time," he told Haute Living. "It will always be a challenge to use surprise ingredients, no matter how prepared you think you are."
Masaharu Morimoto’s wife is a great cook, too
He may be the most famous chef in the family, but according to Masaharu Morimoto, his wife is a great cook too. When asked in an interview, "Who’s the most underrated chef working in the business today?" Morimoto replied, simply, "My wife."
Morimoto prefers not to cook at home, since it’s what he does all day at work, though he did say that he’ll sometimes dream up new dishes and work on presentation at home. But for the most part, his wife is in charge.
Her specialties include traditional Japanese vegetable and root vegetable dishes. Morimoto has said that he eats mostly vegetarian at home, though he’ll occasionally have some simply steamed chicken.
Some of his favorite healthy Japanese comfort food dishes include tofu, dried seaweed, and root veggies that his wife prepares for him in a variety of ways, including simmered nimono, steamed mushimono, aemono (marinated salad), and baked yakimono.
Masaharu Morimoto eats one meal a day
When he’s not at home with his wife to cook for him, Masaharu Morimoto sticks to a strict eating schedule. Instead of sitting down to three well-rounded meals a day, the chef eats just one large meal. He insists that it’s enough for him.
Between 3 and 5 p.m., he’ll indulge in a big meal often consisting of Japanese favorites like ramen, sauteed vegetables, meal or fish, and rice. And if he’s traveling, forget about it — he doesn’t eat at all.
He may be on to something. There’s a fair amount of scientific evidence that intermittent fasting can be beneficial to metabolic health. Likewise, other studies show that abstaining from eating on planes might be one of the most effective ways to combat jet lag.
And, Morimoto points out that wherever he’s traveling he probably has a restaurant waiting for him where he can get a better meal than he would on an airplane anyway.
Masaharu Morimoto’s favorite ingredient is rice
You may think that a chef who has traveled the world and has restaurants in countries scattered across the globe might have some exotic food or luxury item as his favorite ingredient, but not Masaharu Morimoto. His favorite ingredient is rice.
Rice is a staple food in Japan, and at one time was even used as currency in the country. The Japanese word for rice (gohan) is synonymous with the word meal, so important is it to the country’s cuisine.
Morimoto recognizes the importance of rice in his restaurants, making time to ensure that each grain is of the highest quality. At every one of Morimoto’s restaurants, they polish the rice on site, so it’s as fresh as possible when it reaches your plate. "We take brown rice and polish it ourselves each day," he told Napa Valley Life. "It has a better, sweeter flavor and it doesn’t sit in a warehouse in a bag for three or four months."
Attention to detail like that is one of the things that sets Morimoto’s restaurants apart.
A broken wrist threatened his career
It was a shoulder injury that dashed Masaharu Morimoto’s dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, and he was haunted by a career-threatening injury once again in 2010.
Proving that spas aren’t always the relaxing escapes they purport to be, Morimoto slipped while getting out of a hot tub at a spa in New Jersey, breaking his wrist on impact. It was his right wrist, making the injury all the more serious.
It wasn’t a small break, either. Dr. Andew Weiland, his surgeon, said it was one of the worst fractures he’d ever seen. Morimoto had to get a titanium plate inserted into his wrist.
Luckily, he slowly made a recovery. He went through physical therapy for half a year, and he practiced with a rubber knife to improve flexibility and re-build the muscles in his wrist. We haven’t heard any news about the wrist troubling him since 2010, so here’s hoping that’s one injury Morimoto can feel confident about overcoming.
Masaharu Morimoto had a set of small businesses in Japan
Some say that you’re never too old to go back to college or opt for major life changes to chase your dreams, and Masaharu Morimoto is living proof of that. According to The Japan Times, he lived in Hiroshima until he was 30 years old — and, more than that, he had a series of small businesses there, ones that he left behind in order to go to the U.S.
He was, at the time, working at a friend’s sushi restaurant, and anyone who’s worked in the food industry knows how exhausting restaurant work is. But somehow, he still found the time to run a small kissaten. According to Culture Trip, that’s essentially a coffee house, but they’re definitely not your average Starbucks. They’re based on old-school tea houses, but as a nod to a time when there was an increasing obsession with Western culture, they serve coffee. Still, they’re typically small, dimly lit, quiet, and comfortable: a place where you can go and enjoy a friendly cup of coffee in a coy, quiet atmosphere.
So, that’s two restaurants (one he owned). At the same time, he and his wife were also running an insurance agency, along with a newspaper delivery business. Are there more hours in the day for Morimoto than for the rest of us? Possibly! It’s also possibly what’s made him so adept at juggling all the responsibilities of his now-global empire.
Masaharu Morimoto’s attitude toward food has evolved quite a bit
While you might expect an award-winning chef always knew that food was his passion, that surprisingly wasn’t the case with Masaharu Morimoto. At all.
When Orlando Weekly asked him what his earliest memory of food was, he gave this surprising response: "I played sports, so I was always hungry. My memory comes not about a particular piece of delicious food; rather, just trying to get full. To me, food was all about quantity rather than quality when I was young."
Who would have thought, right?
Over the years, he says his attitude toward food has changed quite a bit, starting with his job at Nobu. There, he says, he learned that he’d been wrong, and cooking wasn’t about the chef at all. "I learned that the customers are everything," he says. "Our job is to make them happy."
One of the ways he wants to do that, he told Hotelier, is by making Japanese cuisine more accessible to people who might hesitate at trying, say, sushi. To that end, he’s made tuna pizza one of his signature dishes. "You know tuna and you know pizza. […] You don’t even know what’s it in but you eat it, and afterwards, you ask what’s in it."
Now, let’s go full circle. The Daily Meal asked him what his biggest disappointment as a chef has been, and he replied: "I cannot serve all my guests directly anymore, […]"
Masaharu Morimoto paid some serious dues as a sushi chef
Everyone has to start somewhere, and in Masaharu Morimoto’s case, his apprenticeship wasn’t just about learning all the tricks of the trade, it was learning a lot about patience, too. When he talked to The Daily Meal and they asked him about his very first job in the industry, he responded that it was as a sushi chef.
Sounds impressive, but he quickly clarified: "Of course, I started as an apprentice. The owner of the restaurant wouldn’t let me touch fish for the first year or so. First, I had to learn basics, such as cleaning, serving customers, chopping scallions, washing rice, etc."
Talk about paying your dues! When Orlando Weekly asked him what advice he had for the sushi chefs that were just getting started, he said that the background and the history is important. "My knife is very sharp, and very expensive. I can give it to you, but you can’t make sushi. You need the proper technique — it’s also important — but the difference is having the skill in the mind, heart, and body."
The worst injury Masaharu Morimoto ever had
Even the pros cut themselves occasionally, get burned on a hot surface, or break some dishes, so what’s Masaharu Morimoto’s worst — and most memorable injury?
He told Orlando Weekly that it happened when he was filming an episode of the Japanese version of Iron Chef. He was working with monkfish, and had to reach into a barrel, grab a live fish, and turn that into a dish. The fish absolutely hadn’t signed up for any of it, and when he tried to cut into it, it bit him. And yes, that very toothy fish pictured is, indeed, a monkfish.
"There was a lot of blood while we were taping the show," he said. "We weren’t live. But it kept bleeding, so I wrapped a towel around my hand and tried to hide it while taping the show."
There’s one particular ingredient that’s made him cringe, too: chili peppers. It was a secret ingredient in one of his Iron Chef competitions, he told The Daily Meal, and he admitted that he had a really tough time with that particular episode, because he usually doesn’t cook with them. Or eat them, apparently: "Trying to taste a pepper during the battle, I bit it and burned my tongue with the heat!"